The first thing done after getting home was to make our apartment safer in case of another attack. Blackout paper was put on all the windows. An old upright piano was moved in front of the living room windows to minimize any damage from broken glass if the windows were broken. Our bedrooms were upstairs, but now cots for my sister and me were set up in the living room to make it easier for us to get out should there be another attack. There were other changes as well. All the elementary school age children in the housing had attended school at Hickam Field. In addition to the damage done at Hickam during the bombing, all military bases were now under strict security. Our school was closed.
On the morning of December 7, 1941 I was living with my mother, sister and stepfather in the military housing just outside Pearl Harbor. I was eleven years old. These are my memories of the bombing and the days that followed.
Yvonne L. Boucher
January 30, 2002
That morning a very loud noise awakened my sister and me. When we looked out the windows to see what was going on, we saw planes swooping and diving overhead. Here and there were plumes of black smoke. Like everyone else, we thought it an exercise being conducted by Hickam Field just across the highway. We heard the phone and our mother's voice but paid little attention until she ran upstairs to tell us our stepfather had called from the base, and the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. Most of our neighbors were standing in the parking lot gazing at the aerial show. When mother ran out and told them of the bombing, some of the women started to cry and everyone hustled their children inside. All the men that were home began to run for the base and their duty stations.
Unaware that our planes had already been destroyed on the ground, we thought they would arrive soon and drive off the Japanese. My mother and our neighbors, Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Pipes, were afraid that in order to escape, the Japanese would drop their bombs anywhere. As the housing was the closest target they decided to take us children and leave. Everyone hurriedly got dressed. My mother put on a suit, hose, and spectator pumps. Having been out the night before, the contents of her purse were in a black evening bag. The fashion dictates of the time said a woman's bag and shoes should match so we all waited somewhat impatiently while my mother changed from the evening bag to one that matched the spectator pumps. Having averted a fashion faux pas, we went out on the road to hitch a ride to the home of a friend. While we waited, a Japanese plane dove on us, and seeing we were women and children, the pilot smiled and waved as he pulled up. The noise, the smoke, women crying, men running and now a plane diving on us were exciting stuff for an eleven year old. We more or less commandeered the car of a gentleman driving toward the base to see what was going on. He drove us into the hills to the home of our friend. On the way we saw rooftops covered with people watching the attack, as well as half clothed military personnel running for the base.
When we arrived at our friend's the women sat and talked quietly. The mood was a somber one. The radio was kept on for any news and we listened intently. Even we children were subdued. The day crept by broken by lunch and dinner. In the evening the radio announcer said everyone should fill a bathtub full of water so they would have clean water to use if the water supply should be poisoned. One of the ladies filled the tub as instructed. The gravity of our situation was bought home to us when Walter Winchell's newscast came on. Censorship had not as yet been imposed, and one of Winchell's informants had given him what would later be classified information. He began to read the names of all the ships sunk in the attack. When he came to the West Virginia there was a cry from Mrs. Pipes. Her husband was on the West Virginia. She began to cry as the other women tried to console her. It would be two days before she found out her husband had gotten to the pier just as the ship was pulling out so was not aboard when she went down. At bedtime the sleeping arrangements were organized, and everyone went to bed. Before going to bed, my mother put a butcher knife under her pillow. I thought she planned to attack and kill any Japanese that might try to take us captive. It was not until years later I found that because of the stories she had read about the conduct of the Japanese in Nanking, she planned to kill my sister and myself if the Japanese landed and took the island. Fortunately, her resolve was never tested.
Two days later my stepfather arrived to take us home. In full uniform with a side arm, rifle with sling over his shoulder and an ammunition belt, he looked like a stranger. He was the first of the husbands to reappear, and all the ladies flung themselves on him crying and asking for news.
LIFE AFTER THE BOMBING
Everyone was issued a gas mask. My stepfather did not trust the masks being given the civilian population so arranged for us to have those issued to the Marines. In a time when all women carried a purse, a gas mask posed a problem. They were housed in big canvas bags, and the wartime regulations said you could not leave the house without it. Rather than carrying both a purse and gas mask, women simply transferred the contents of their purses to the bag holding the gas mask. The authorities vigorously opposed this practice, but to no avail.
Our nights were punctuated by the sounds of machine gun fire. Young sentries, alone and scared, saw an invading Japanese soldier in every shadow. Several times a week the air raid siren would blare as an unidentified plane was spotted. Because of the blackout the night was completely dark, and I thought the bright beams from the searchlights crisscrossing the sky in ever changing patterns were beautiful. Then too, the children in the housing were no longer able to do the things we usually did. No more riding our bicycles to the rec center, it had become a temporary hospital. No more going on the base to go swimming or to the Y for an ice cream cone. All military sites were off limits.
It is remarkable how quickly humans can adapt to change. Soon our lives under these new rules seemed normal---until Christmas. Normally Christmas trees were shipped to the islands in cargo vessels. Now all available space was reserved for essential items, and since Christmas trees were not considered essential, there were none. All the parents were trying hard to maintain a sense of normalcy for the sake of the children. Everyone was looking in vain for a Christmas tree. One day my stepfather came home wearing a big grin. He held up a brown paper bag from which he produced an artificial tree. It was only about fourteen or fifteen inches tall and unlike today's artificial trees, bore little resemblance to a real one. My sister and I were not impressed. The box of ornaments was brought out, and we began to decorate the tree as we had each year. Our stepfather put on a string of lights, my sister and I put on the ornaments and mother put on the icicles. A pillowslip was wrapped around the base of the tree to represent snow. Some of the lights had to be hidden under the "snow" as the string was too long for the little tree. The ornaments were too big and the icicles on the bottom branches lay on the table like pools of silver, but somehow it didn't matter. We had a shiny Christmas tree and Christmas was on the way. I remember that as one of the best Christmases I ever had. There was a feeling of warmth, of closeness, of caring that was almost tangible, a sense of being blessed somehow.
In February of 1942 we were told we would be going back to the states. Our convoy was made up of the Lurline, the Aquitania and the U.S. Grant as well as various naval vessels whose job it was to protect us should a Japanese submarine appear. The Lurline was a luxury liner commandeered for the job. Most of the military dependents being evacuated from Hawaii were aboard the Lurline. The Aquitania was a British luxury liner that had sailed, without escort, from Australia to join our convoy. The Grant was an old transport reacquired by our Navy in 1940. We were on the Grant along with a handful of other women and children, a large number of soldiers being transported I know not where, and Japanese prisoner of war number one. He had been the commander of a mini sub that had run aground off Barber's Point. He had failed to self-destruct as he was suppose to, and had been captured. The prisoner evidently felt a deep sense of shame at being captured, and great care was taken to see that he did not jump overboard on his daily walk on the deck. However, in a moment of relative privacy he did manage to burn his cheeks with a lighted cigarette, the only means left him to atone.
Those aboard the Lurline had lovely cabins, lounges and dining area. The Grant was Spartan. My mother, my sister and I had a small cabin with two metal bunks and a metal cot. However, in some ways we were the fortunate ones. The Grant was part of a fleet accustomed to emergencies. We were well provisioned. Even the ship's store was open and well stocked. The Lurline had to ration fresh water. While they had plenty of hotdogs and ice cream, toward the end of the voyage other menu items were running low.
The soldiers aboard the Grant had even fewer amenities than we civilians did. They were assigned bunks below deck. Some even had to put up a hammock in which to sleep. As their quarters were warm, close and rather smelly, they spent as much time as they could on deck. They were not allowed to mix with the civilians so huddled in a designated area at the bow of the ship where they were subjected to the motion of the sea and a constant wetting down from spray.
And so we sailed across the Pacific zigging and zagging. Never mind that the Aquitania had sailed across hundreds of miles of ocean and had not seen a single Japanese submarine, ship or plane, the Navy went by the book. Every morning rumors flew; a periscope had been sighted during the night, a ship had been seen. If you asked how the teller knew, they always replied a sailor had told them. It was obvious even to me that the sailors were having fun with the more gullible ladies aboard. The first few days out we had a number of general quarters drills. We had been told that when the Claxton sounded we were to go immediately to our cabins and wait five minutes. From there we were to go to the dining room where everyone would be told what to do. To my knowledge everyone complied, everyone but me. I was miserably seasick from the moment I came aboard and was not about to leave my bed to go below decks where the air was stale and the motion of the ship even more pronounced. When the others went below I sat or lay on my bunk. (There were no chairs in the cabin.) I could hear the men at their battle stations, officers hollering orders and the firing of the ship's guns. I felt part of a big adventure.
One morning we awoke to find we were all alone. The convoy had steamed on without us. The Grant had a developed a problem with the rudder, and we had been steaming in circles for much of the night. As it turned out, the rest of the convoy had been moving very slowly in order that we might catch up so when the rudder was repaired it did not take long to find them. On another occasion one of our escort vessels steamed off over the horizon to investigate a ship sighting but soon returned having determined it was nothing. In truth it was an uneventful voyage.
Before we disembarked in San Francisco there was a meeting in which we were told not to reveal anything that happened at Pearl Harbor. My mother sat there, very attentive, while hiding the first newspaper printed after the bombing under her blouse. It was printed before censorship and would have been confiscated had they known she had it. It was not shown to anyone when we got home but became the first page of a large collection of scrapbooks she kept on the war. I am sure every one took their responsibility very seriously. My sister and I certainly did and never responded to questions about what had happened.
When we landed the Red Cross met us at the dock. We were surprised to find out we were "refugees". The Red Cross ladies had warm clothes, hot coffee and donuts ready for us. They transported us to local hotels where each family made their own arrangements to go home. Home for my mother, my sister and myself was San Diego, California where we, like the rest of
the country, waited.
© Yvonne L. Boucher, 2002.